Courting African hearts

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 20 February, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 20 February, 2007, 12:00am

President Hu Jintao's 12-day, eight-nation African diplomatic tour this month has come under scrutiny from the western mainstream media. Some dismiss Mr Hu's diplomatic efforts as simply a play for the oil and mineral reserves of these African nations. Others speculate whether Beijing is pursuing a new role as a leader of underdeveloped nations.

The late premier Zhou Enlai envisioned a role for China as leader of the non-aligned movement, but it was never fulfilled. That was partly because of the internal excesses of the Cultural Revolution, and China's preoccupation with its own economic and social transition over the past 30 years.

That transition is now more or less complete. So, is Mr Hu seeking to fill the role that Zhou once envisioned? Or does China have no choice but to assume a key political role in line with its economic clout?

This whole process really began during the 2003 World Trade Organisation meeting in Cancun, Mexico. Beijing surprised the Group of Eight industrialised nations by throwing its weight behind India and Brazil in disputes over grain subsidies. Other developing nations followed, and the G-20 (a group of industrialised and emerging market countries) was created.

When the Korean Peninsula edged towards crisis, Beijing hosted the six-party talks on Pyongyang's nuclear programme, attempting to replace belligerent posturing with consensus building.

Then, by reaching out a hand to India last year, China spearheaded the pacification of long-held animosities across the Himalayan region. It sought economic rather than political solutions to the poverty that burdens humanity in this region.

In November, as host of the African Forum, China wrote off debts and offered infrastructure support without attaching political conditions.

As for Darfur - which will be the next challenge - Mr Hu has said: 'Chinese respect Sudan's sovereignty and territorial integrity, and insist upon peaceful measures to solve the problem.' He expressed open support for African states and the United Nations to use 'constructive measures' to solve the crisis - an obvious exclusion of unilateralism, bombing and invasion.

The Darfur question is more complicated than the western media portrays it. China's own exploratory oil crews took risks exploring Sudan's reserves. And China will soon become dependent on uranium - of which Sudan has rich reserves - to fuel its fast-expanding nuclear plants planned as an alternative to oil. So an intractable crisis in Sudan could slash China's economic growth, jeopardising its own political stability.

Throughout his recent African tour, Mr Hu repeatedly said: 'Chinese people will forever be good friends, partners and brothers of African people. China will not force its own ideology, social system or development model upon others, and never do anything to harm African nations or people.'

In short, he was promising business without ideology. That message received overwhelming support from African nations - while grating on the ears of certain western politicians and mainstream media quick to find fault with China's economic and diplomatic efforts in Africa.

While Beijing may not have Washington's angelic human rights record, it supported many of the liberation movements that ousted dictatorial and racist governments. Beijing is now writing off the same debts that cemented cyclical poverty in Africa, building the infrastructure that western aid agencies talk about while attaching 'conditionalities'.

Moreover, Beijing is offering alternative approaches for progress on unresolved problems that haunt most of humanity, like poverty, population control and basic infrastructure.

China may not have a single solution, but that is the whole point. Experiences based on local realities and conditions offer more practical solutions than high morality and alien political systems that are irrelevant to the historic and social contexts of these ethnically diverse regions.

Laurence Brahm is a political economist, author, filmmaker and founder of Shambhala Foundation